On Writing: Solitude & Femininity

glenn gould

Whenever I think about the topic of solitude and writing, I’m reminded of Glenn Gould, who was not a writer, but a pianist. I've always been fascinated with him, and I’ve linked this fascination with my own personal process of writing. Like him, I've developed a further fascination with the landscape of the icy North (I’m sure you're all sick of me saying how much I want to see the Northern Lights).

When I recently saw a documentary on Glenn Gould, I was immediately struck by a particular statement made by his friend, that his own interest in the cold, bleak landscape of the North was based on a love of solitude. Ultimately, Gould linked this landscape with the Northern part of our being; with a process of getting along with yourself when there’s nothing and no-one else to get along with. I love this. For me, writing is precisely about learning to get along with myself: that is, learning to feel comfortable and secure in who I am and what I do. This may explain why my interest in the Northern landscape is not simply based on its aesthetic beauty, but also on its philosophical implications.

And yet, whenever I have these thoughts, I always curb myself. I stop myself from allowing too much emotional or personal investment in such an idea of writing and its role in my life. I’ve discovered over the past few years of doing my PhD that the reason behind this is often based on my gender.

Women have always experienced difficulty exploring the same mode of personal development and solitude associated with the creative process. If you think about it, women were, and still are, intimately defined via other people, rather than thought of as individual beings. We are somebody’s mother, daughter, wife. There’s nothing essentially wrong with that, it just needs to be expanded with other definitions of femininity. The kind of introspective sense of self I associate with Gould is still characteristically male. If I need any reminder of this, I only need to point to the repetitive list of questions I get on a regular basis: ‘when are you getting married?’, ‘when are you going to have children?’ – i.e., when are you going to become a ‘real’ woman? Funny how many of my male friends who are the same age as me are never asked these questions. It's also funny how writing is not thought of as part of my intrinsic personality, just something I happen to do.

If part of the point of why I write is linked to becoming more comfortable with myself, I suspect that this comfort will have to expand beyond my own solitary experience to become part of everyday culture. In her recent announcement of a new Literary Prize for women, Sophie Cunningham notes that part of the process of changing the way we think about writing and women’s relationship to it involves giving women's literary voices the same credibility and claim to 'seriousness' as men's literature, recognising that stories about women's lives, desires and experiences are not twee romance or 'chick lit', but just 'lit'. If we can do that, maybe those questions I'm asked on a regular basis would become irrelevant.

I'd be interested to hear your experiences or thoughts. I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who has had these thoughts.

Image credit: Photograph of Glenn Gould by Gordon Parks/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images, 1956.